Tips for Better Photos

crafts-photography-december-2008-2It has been an amazing year for photography. Film cameras and film itself have almost vanished from the scene. More juried shows are switching to digital image submissions and more artists are feeling at ease with the new technology. Overall, the revolution is over and digital has won. While film will still be the media of choice for some, digital photography will open up all sorts of possibilities for artists. Just look at the Internet and the opportunities it offers for artists. Through it, they can reach a global marketplace and share their experiences and knowledge with other artists.

With this year winding to a close, let me review some of the things I’ve explained over the year and expand on a few others.

Cameras
A few months ago I wrote about electronic viewfinder (EVF) cameras, or digicams, that are bigger and better than point-and-shoot cameras and yet far less expensive and just about as good as digital single-lens reflex (dSLR) cameras. If you haven’t bought a digital camera yet, consider purchasing a “bridge” camera. These cameras are incredibly versatile and are more than sufficient to produce great photos for your jury submissions.

Typical examples of these cameras include the Fuji FinePix S100FS, the Sony DSC H10, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ28 and the Olympus SP-560 UZ. These cameras have LCD monitors and live view. This means you can focus and frame your image on the LCD monitor before taking a photo. You can also compose using the small screen in the viewfinder.

These cameras are lighter, less expensive and produce images of the same quality as dSLR cameras at lower ISO speeds. Plus, their permanently mounted lenses are far more versatile than the typical dSLR “kit” lens, and because they are fixed to the camera, there’s no worry about getting dirt on a delicate sensor while changing lenses. And unfortunately, some dSLR companies are cutting corners with materials. If you are buying a dSLR, check out the lens mount—some big names are using plastic lens mounts that are not as sturdy as metal ones.

Easy on the megapixels
Although the megapixel wars have calmed, there is still a competition for who has the most. Sensors are crammed with as many megapixels as possible, but the manufacturers rarely talk about the downside of megapixel mania. Megapixels have dimension. Unlike the surface of film, which is flat, megapixels are physical elements. Each has a lens and a support and so the surface has texture. This means shadows, which means there are problems on a crowded sensor.

For an artist who wants jury images, ZAPP submissions and the occasional postcard, any camera between six and ten megapixels will do the job wonderfully.

crafts-photography-december-2008-1Easier lighting
Digital photography has energized the photo accessory market. Due to the digital camera’s ability to adjust for the color of the lighting, you don’t have to worry about filters or using a film type balanced to your lights. This flexibility makes it easier to work with lights than ever before and the market has responded with a slew of products. Through online photo sources like B&H Photo Video, Amazon, Adorama and Tabletop Studios, you can get a complete “studio”—lights, background, supports—for almost any size work at relatively modest prices.

Saving, saving, saving
The uniqueness of slides was always an issue. If you had a good slide of your work, you had to get duplicate slides to send out or risk the loss of your one precious image. Unfortunately, duplicates were sometimes totally accurate and beautiful, and sometimes nearly unrecognizable. Digital images eliminate all this.

They are infinitely and perfectly replicable, but you have to save them first. Rule number one of digital photography is get the pictures off your camera ASAP. Upload your images to a photo storage website like Picasa before you do anything else. Save the original images you shot and save them all. Then when they are safely stored, delete the images from your memory card.

I always go the extra step of burning a backup CD with all of my original images. There is nothing as comforting as having a file of backup discs of all your work.

Shoot to size
The problem with a big, heavy, high-end dSLR is that it is overkill for shooting jury images and images for the Web. A 10MP camera produces a file that is simply too large for the Web. In fact, most dSLRs can’t even be set to take images that will work on the Web (an image sized to 1024 x 780 at 72ppi or smaller).

To get the image small enough, it has to be resized. This really just means you are going to use computer algorithms to toss out a ton of data and information to “resize” the picture. This waste of data is another reason why it is easier to shoot as close to the final image size as possible. When shooting for the Web, set your camera to its smallest image size. Or better still, get yourself a copy of Photoshop Elements or Corel Paint Shop Pro.

Image editing
When I used film I loved processing the film myself. I’d spend an hour or so ritualistically rotating and shaking a processing tank and carefully keeping track of the temperature of all the chemicals. For many photographers, processing and printing were their raison d’être.
Now, you push the shutter release and there’s your picture. Well, almost. While cameras are very, very good at capturing the image, it is still very important for the photographer to edit and tweak things.

An artist who applies to lots of juried shows is going to encounter many different digital image submission requirements. Different size files and different file types abound. Even the ZAPP application process requires image manipulation. It is important that you learn and understand Photoshop or one of the other editing programs. Picasa and a few others can be found free online. Photoshop Elements and similar programs usually cost under $100 and are sometimes provided as part of a “bundle” when you buy a computer or printer.
You don’t need the big editing versions like Photoshop CS. They are useful for professionals but take up much too much memory for the simple adjustment and sizing needs you’ll have for jury submissions.

Book learning
Okay, now I’m going to promote my book—I’m saying it up front so you don’t write to me about sneaking it in. For any artist trying to photograph their work for any purpose, Photographing Arts, Crafts & Collectibles: Take Great Digital Photos for Portfolios, Documentation, or Selling on the Web is a fundamental text. It provides you with the basic information and tech­niques you need for photographing ceramics, glass, paintings or almost any other object. And it is the only text out there about digital photography for craftspeople. Check it out at your local bookstore or amazon.com.

Wrapping up the year, I’m looking forward to 2009 and several new directions for digital photography. But those will have to wait for future columns.

Steve Meltzer is a Gig Harbor, Washington-based photographer. Visit his website at stevefotos.com.

Steve Meltzer

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